Religion is a belief system that includes prayers, rituals, ceremonies, beliefs, moral values and teachings. It affects a person’s worldview, behavior and culture. It also includes supernatural and spiritual components. Religion is a global phenomenon, found in all cultures. There are many different religions, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism and Buddhism. The practice of religion improves a person’s health, learning and economic well-being and can reduce the incidence of social pathologies, such as out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, anxieties and prejudices. It is a source of inspiration and guidance in personal, family and community life. In addition, it is a source of comfort and solace in times of distress.
The study of religion is an interdisciplinary field that draws on many disciplines. Anthropologists believe that early religion developed out of human beings’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather and hunting success. These attempts to manipulate the natural environment were based on magic and supplication, or appealing to gods and goddesses. The philosopher Hegel saw religion as playing a formative role in the development of human society.
Sociologists and historians are interested in the relationship between religion and a person’s sense of purpose, meaning and direction in life. They believe that a person’s religion is a reflection of a deeper spiritual self. It is also a way to maintain an image or feeling of morality and identity in a secularized society. In addition, sociologists and historians study the relationship between religion and power. They recognize that religious groups are often able to influence the political landscape and can be used to promote specific agendas or ideologies.
Philosophers and psychologists have a more theoretical approach to religion. They focus on religion as an experience that provides a framework for interpreting the universe and human existence. Philosophers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Wilhelm von Humboldt emphasized the importance of mythology and symbolism for understanding religion.
Other philosophers have a more formal strategy in their study of religion, seeking to define the subject by comparing it to other subjects. This approach has led to some dubious conclusions. For example, Emile Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), sought to identify certain secondary traits that distinguish religion from other phenomena and then looked for a structure that these cases had in common. He argued that a discontinuous relationship between an empirical, mundane order and a higher-level, cosmic-level order was central to the definition of religion.
Some scholars have criticized the idea of defining religion in terms of a common pattern that can be applied to all societies. They argue that this approach can lead to a form of lowest common denominator, and that a more thorough and careful study of religion would be possible only once a comprehensive concept of the subject was in place. Others suggest that researchers proceed with study without worrying about a precise definition at first and then fashioning it later (Harrison 1912; Weber 1922). With new religions, revitalization movements and quasi-religious pursuits coming to the fore in modern societies, this debate is being played out all over again.